“The History of Life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings,” writes Rachel Carson in her environmental classic Silent Spring (1962). An education in Earth’s natural and physical environments and their interrelationships is at the foundation of the top-ranked interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences undergraduate program at Oregon State.
Global warming, species extinction, air and water pollution, natural resource depletion, and renewable energy demands are rapidly changing the world we live in. These developments require the expertise and knowledge of environmental scientists who can assess, tackle and mitigate environmental challenges as well as help preserve a healthy natural environment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of environmental scientists is projected to increase 11 percent from 2016 to 2026.
Housed in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State’s online and on campus environmental sciences bachelor program is setting high standards for excellence. U.S. News & World Report features OSU in its top 40 programs for Best Global Universities for Environment/Ecology, awarding it a rank of 36 amongst similar programs worldwide.
The online program in environmental sciences was ranked No. 2 in the nation by Online Colleges in its ranking for Best Online Colleges for Environmental Science in 2018. For its rankings, Online Colleges “collected data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and utilized a custom methodology to ascertain the ten best schools for environmental science in the United States.”
Students can earn an environmental sciences degree both on campus and through online courses, which are taught by Oregon State faculty, many of which are in the College of Science. The online bachelor of science degree in environmental sciences is offered by OSU’s award-winning Ecampus. With a focus on eco-oriented programs as well as a broad swath of fields from anthropology to computer science, OSU Ecampus has racked up top place rankings in almost every prestigious survey of online degree programs. Since 2014, U.S. News & World Report has ranked OSU Ecampus in its top 10 online bachelor’s programs.
Breaking down boundaries: An interdisciplinary approach
One of the great strengths of environmental sciences at OSU is undoubtedly its interdisciplinary character. The program emphasizes the biological, physical, earth and natural sciences as well as the integration of social sciences that cover a wide range of subject areas from ethics to environmental law, policy and management.
Director of the Environmental Sciences Program Laurence Becker explains that the program offers a broad base in the sciences with a great deal of academic flexibility for students who love the environment and desire a broad exposure to both science and environmental law and policy.
An attractive feature of the program is that students can choose from one of nine options that range from studies in alternative energy and environmental science education to earth systems and environmental water resources. The most popular options are applied ecology and conservation, resources and sustainability.
In addition, the major offers two certificates: one in the popular field of geographic information science (GIS) and the other in scientific, technical and professional communication. All of the specializations are available online through Ecampus except alternative energy and environmental science education.
More often than not students discover their vocation as they experience different facets of environmental science training in this nontraditional program.
“This program allows them to remain open to different job opportunities and different areas of environmental science they are exposed to in their undergraduate career. The broad degree allows students to shift along the way if needed and many discover interests they wouldn’t have dreamed of in the beginning,” said Becker.
The science in environmental sciences
Science is a foundation for the degree because environmental studies majors need the scientific aptitude to apply complex concepts in biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics in order to understand challenging environmental issues and seek solutions. Quantitative coursework in differential, integral calculus and statistical methods prepare students to design research models and employ analytical tools to study and assess the environmental impact of development projects and businesses.
The bachelor of science degree in Environmental Sciences requires all students to complete a full year of basic science courses in biology and chemistry, as well as courses in calculus, statistics and physics.
The environmental sciences curriculum comprises many core courses that are taught in the College of Science. It offers students different specializations in the program as well as a rigorous foundation in theoretical and experimental upper-level science courses, including:
- Ecology (BI 370), which is central to the degree program
- Marine ecology
- Ecological methods
- Animal behavior
- Human ecology
- Conservation of marine mammals
- Modern chemical analysis, among others.
For example, a specialization in aquatic biology comprises coursework in a diverse and exciting mix of courses in marine and invertebrate biology offered by the College of Science, oceanography in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environmental Sciences and courses in biological resources at the College of Forestry.
The strong presence of science in the basic, core and specialized components of the Environmental Sciences program enhances both its rigor and cross-disciplinary power.
Develop expertise that makes a difference to all
An experiential learning requirement offers students the opportunity to complete an environmental science related internship, research project, field course or a study abroad experience.
Becker points out that online students are encouraged to pursue internships; on-campus students often undertake research projects or internships.
The experiences often turn out to have a lasting impact on student careers, explains Becker. Students discover opportunities to pursue significant internships in the areas of hydrology, wildlife management, conservation science, biochemistry and geoscience across local and federal government agencies, research centers, environmental consulting firms and not-for-profit organizations. It is not unusual for quite a few of them to translate into longer-term opportunities and job offers.
The broad versus the narrow
Becker often meets parents of prospective students who are nervous about job prospects within a broad field of study.
“The program’s training in science and social science cultivates a broad knowledge of natural sciences with ethics and policy. We often attract students from more specialized majors such as engineering who don’t feel comfortable in a narrower choice of subjects and are motivated by a deep love for the environment.”
The most attractive feature of the degree is the wide variety of careers it throws open for graduates. Environmental scientists can work in local government, private companies, law firms, not-for-profit groups or government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service, or the United States Geological Survey. Students also get into competitive law school programs and other graduate programs in the sciences and policy.
Due to the unique constellations of quantitative, analytical and research skills in addition to writing and communication abilities that they acquire from the interdisciplinary curriculum, environmental science students find themselves well suited to a diverse range of jobs across environmental science, policy, education and consulting firms.
“It is incumbent on us as advisors and teachers to help students find something that they are passionate about,” said Becker.
Each year Becker invites seniors and recent alumni to speak to first-year students in his Environmental Sciences Orientation class. During a recent visit, a talented environmental sciences alumnus who was also a ROTC (Reserve Officers Trainings Corps) graduate at OSU, shared insights gleaned from his professional journey.
He had easily found employment, working at positions related to the field of environmental sciences that were nonetheless very different from one another. A fourth job change landed him an enviable position in the Oregon National Guard where he leads the environmental management of their facilities.
The alumnus had a message about the enduring advantages of an environmental sciences degree: “The degree because of its breadth allowed me to apply for jobs that I hadn’t worked in.”
“Having this broad background allowed for a possibility of change when the opportunity arose,” added Becker.
Given the rising demand for experts in the field, OSU environmental scientists will be having an impact on the world around us for many decades to come.